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[Page 120]

The Secret Societies “Nes Ziyona”
and “Netsakh Isroel”

Written by E. Leoni

Translated by M. Porat z”l

Edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel

Hanaziv was devoted heart and soul to the “Khovevey Zion” movement but the Yeshiva was the soul of his life. He required from his students one thing only: to be devoted entirely to Torah study and not to divert their thought to other ideas.

In one of his letters to the Khovevey Zion Committee in Warsaw he excused himself for not being active in the work for Erets Israel, because all his time and energy are dedicated to the holy Eyts Hayim Yeshiva. And if Hanaziv, the Yeshiva's head, could not find any possibility to refer his attention to national activities, all the more so was the case for his students.

Anyway, the national revival ideas penetrated through the Yeshiva walls and were planted in the students' hearts. The Volozhin Yeshiva became the Center of the national movement from where the ideas spread out into the important Torah centers of the Diaspora.

A meeting was held by seven Yeshiva students in utmost discretion on winter 5645 (1885). Moyshe Barshak, Ben Zion Dante, Shimon Zlotoybke, Yakov Flakser, Menahem Fridman, Yosef Rozenkrants and Yosef Rotshtayn laid the foundation of “Ness Ziona” (Banner of Ziyon) Society and swore allegiance to its aims.

The Executive committee of “Ness Ziyona” in Volozhin on the year 5660 (1890)
Sitting from left: Yakov Halperin, R' Moshe Epsteyn, Menahem Mendl Nahumovski
Standing: Hayim Lerman, Yakov Zingman , , R' Yakov Flakser

During the first year of its existence the society listed 50 members. The Yeshiva students composed a large reserve for newcomers. All was managed in complete secrecy. In order to defend its existence every new member entering the Society was obliged to swear an oath:

“In the name of our Holy Land and in the name of all that is dear to us I'm swearing this oath of allegiance to be faithful to our Society's purposes and to make every effort to accomplish the idea of settling Eretz Israel”

On 1991 a second secret Society “Nezah Isroel” (The Eternity of Israel) was created inside the Yeshiva. Hayim Nakhman Bialik was among its founders. He wrote in his “Biographical Note” :

“It happened during the publication days of Ahad Haam's first articles. The best and the “enlightened” Yeshiva students' formed a Society and vowed to dedicate their talents and their entire life for their people. The concept was noble and it was clarified as follows: The Volozhin Yeshiva being center of the best talents that would finally disperse amongst the Jewish world to penetrate, to be absorbed into it and to be its leaders as Rabbis', Congregation heads, publicists and writers. Therefore it would be sufficient for us to establish among the Volozhin students a permanent “Plant Nursery” for Zion Lovers. The society was based on the best of the best Yeshiva students. Every candidate was tested from every side. Only those who were deemed to become a benediction to the cause in the future were chosen as members. I was considered as a future writer and this was the reason for my reception as a fellow in their company. I was one the first ones. At this very time I wrote, as asked by my colleagues of the Society, an article, my first literary experience “The Settlement Idea” . It was published in the “Hamelits” magazine. It was written as a manifest of our Society to publish its ideas in the world”

There were some twenty members who composed the Society. Despite their small number they considered each activity as very important. They planned to establish a cooperative settlement for religious youngsters in Erets Israel, which would be a showpiece not onlyof loving work but also of morality and religious ethics.

The Yeshivah was closed in the winter of 5662 (1892). The students dispersed and that was the end of Zionist activities in the Volozhin Yeshiva.

[Page 124]

The Pilpul dispute between Hanaziv
and Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveytshik

Hanaziv (Married to Rayne Bashe Rabbi Itsele's daughter) and his assistant Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveytshik (Rabbi Khayim's grand son) managed the Yeshiva after Reb Itsele's decease. They had different opinions as to the methods of Talmud learning. Hanaziv was convinced that the Yeshiva study should be conducted in the manner set by Rabbi Eliyahu the Vilna Gaon and taught by Rabbi Khayim Volozhiner.

The learning method as explicated by Rabbi Meyir Berlin “was not based on “Pilpul” – sharp argumentation, on shallow erudition and on textual punctiliousness. It was based on penetration into the depth of the subject studied, on aspiration to find the truth, on the striving towards honesty, understanding and reaching the evident and clear conclusion. This was Hanaziv's method as he described in his books and this became the learning method in the Volozhin Yeshiva. Understanding and deepening was the first approach. To know if the understanding is true and the deepening is not distorted the student must find evidence and support in the great principal writings such as the Mishnah, find the same laws which appear in other tractates, because there are poor Torah sayings in one place but rich in another”.

Hanaziv denied the very essence of Pilpul. He claimed that the dessert could not replace the main dish. And the dessert is good after a main meal consisting of bread, meat and fish so is the Pilpul good and welcome after a serious study of Talmud, Rabbinical Judgments and Primary Books; after the student arrived at a complete knowledge and understanding of the basic Torah virtues and merits.

In his eyes Torah study alone was important. And the more a man increased his Torah knowledge the more his mental power would grow. Torah study, according to Hanaziv is like coals in a factory, the more energy is supplied the more its production will grow.

Hanaziv did not look positively at lengthy prayers. Very long praying interfered with the essential study of Torah. Torah learning demands that the student be dedicated to it totally and every hour.

Rabbi Borukh Halevi Epstein describes the controversy between Hanaziv and R' Ber Soloveytshik:

“The prodigious R' Y. B. Soloveytshik's opinion was that the witty Pilpul is a precious tool to sharpen the young students' intellect, to develop their logic, to excite the rivalry of wisdom and to make them enjoy it.

The two opinions gave rise to an acute separation between the Yeshiva students. Each party was sure in the rightness of his method. The disagreement over learning methods turned pace by pace into a bitter conflict. Close friends became bitter adversaries. The dispute broke out of Volozhin's borders and reached near and distant villages and towns. Great Rabbis and scholars became interested in the dispute.”

To settle the controversy a most outstanding delegation was invited to Volozhin.

The honorable forum composed by the presiding judge of Minsk David Tabil, Rabbi Yosef from Slutsk, Rabbi Itskhak Elhanan from Kovno and Rabbi Zev Landau the preacher from Vilna delivered its judgment in favor of Hanaziv.

Rabbi Yossi Ber left Volozhin after the verdict had been pronounced. Rabbi Refoel Shapiro, Hanaziv's son in law took his place. The dispute did not interfere with the marriage of Rabbi Khayim Soloveytshik Yossi Ber's son to Reb Refoel's daughter, Hanaziv's granddaughter.

[Page 129]

Hanaziv's moral elevation and educational model

It was a period in which the Volozhin Yeshiva excelled with many prodigious students. Some of them were suspected of not praying in public and of not coming to pray Shakharis in the Yeshiva. Hanaziv nominated a special functionary as manager assistant to stop the “plague”. The students detested him and waited for the day of revenge. This hated person informed the Hanaziv, that on the eve of Shavuot, many students had spoiled their side-locks (peyess). The Yeshiva Head turned around and observed his students during the prayers. At the prayers end he pronounced, according to habit, his weekly Bible lesson. On his way home he encountered a student renowned throughout the Yeshiva, who was son of a wealthy family and a diligent learner. The student walked with a Talmud Book in his hand. He was washed up and his side-locks were shorn. The Rabbi's anger at seeing this sacrilege was big and he slapped the students' face hard. Overwhelmed, he lost the holy Book and it fell from his hands.

The incident became known among the students. They decided to defend their colleague's dignity. When the Yeshiva-boys took their places to learn a “wham” was heard. Someone opened and closed again and again the shelf of his learning stand. It became the battle cry. All the students began repeatedly opening and closing their stand-shelves with a bang. In addition doors and windows were wide opened allowing the wind to penetrate, which broke the porthole glasses, creating a true storm inside the building. The manager assistant went among the rioting youngsters. His appearance added fuel to the fire. Some students approached the hated manager and calling him “scoundrel”, “spy” and other disgraceful words, forced him to leave the Yeshiva.

At noon the Rabbi came up to teach his lesson, as usual. The students did not respect him. Uselessly he beat with his hands on the table. The uproar only increased. Irritated and frustrated he left his place without speaking to his pupils.

To the holiday evening prayer all Yeshiva students and teachers came dressed in festive clothes. The audience said noiselessly the Shmone-Esrey prayer, like nothing happened. But when Praying reached the holy KODOYSH sentence the shin was heard through the hall without interruption “sh,sh,sh,sh…”

On each Saturday and Holiday eve, the students would habitually pass the Yeshiva Head to bless with the “Gut Yom Tev, Rebe!” “Enjoy Your Holiday, Rabbi”. But this evening nobody moved from his place.

The Rabbi initiated the peace making; turning to the students he called several times “Gut Yom Tev, Kinder” - “Enjoy your Holiday, Children”. Nobody answered.

Feeling that his Children would not surrender and fearing Torah Learning abrogation, Hanaziv fought against his pride. The love to his students and his enormous respect for Torah study was stronger. Clapping the palm of his hand on his small praying stand, the Rabbi turned to the audience and called: Please wait, do not leave before you listen to me. He ascended the stage and asked his Students to forgive him his weakness, the beating of the student. He asked pardon and remission. “And you shall pardon my sin” he called, “in spite of being Rabbi and Yeshiva head”. The audience answered its Rabbis' words in a vigorous unison: “GUT YOM TEV, REBE!”

[Page 128]

Rabbi Yehoshua Heshl Levin's rebellion

Rabbi Yehoshua Heshl Levin

Rabbi Eliyahu Zalman, Rabbi Itsele's son married his daughter to Rabbi Yehoshua Heshl Levin (The Hamarsha's grandson). Rabbi Itsele was very pleased with him. He would say “This grand son shall have a part in the Yeshiva”.

Rabbi Yehoshua Heshl was very pretentious. Proud to be Hamarsha's offspring he used to say that he was the man who deserved the Yeshiva presidency. The relations between Hanaziv and R' Yehoshua became so bad, that R' Yehoshua formed a “Minyan” at home and ceased to visit the Yeshiva. He did even more. R' Yehoshua Heshl began to giving lessons at home. Many students used to listen to his teaching. Many students expressed support for the Rabbi's claim to the presidency. It aroused a mutiny. The Volozhin Kehila began to worry. They referred to the leaders of the congregations in Vilna and Minsk. They sent a letter asking R' Yehoshua to stop dreaming about ruling the Yeshiva. One morning his friends did not find him at his home. R' Yehoshua left the town in haste. A fable went around that R' Yehoshua Heshl had a vision in which Rabbi Hayim Volozhiner ordered him to leave Volozhin.

[Page 131]

The big uprising at the yeshiva

In the last years of the Yeshiva's existence the Hanaziv felt his force and abilities leave him. The Rabbi decided to pass the Yeshiva management to his son, Rabbi Itsele's grand son to R' Hayim Berlin. The students strongly opposed this decision. They claimed that the son's power is not like his father's. They rose up and conducted a bitter struggle. The old man's weapons were tears and pleadings. The students attacked with angry screams and hard anonymous letters, written with rude coarse hands. They reached the Rabbi at home, in his bed, in the Synagogue Ark, in the bag of his praying shawl and his pockets. The youngsters chased the old weak Rabbi with heartless cruelty. They caused him major suffering and hurt his honor severely.

The Zhitomirer, which was Bialik's nickname, describes the uprising in his “The Night of Uproar”:

The yeshiva turned to a reptiles cave
God's armies fought ferociously
Imprisoned powers broke out like tyrant winds…
A hundred hands released the chains
Detained anger was sent to freedom
They shattered windows, extinguished candles
And overturned benches stands and tables
Bialik was not with the fighters. He did not interrupt his learning.
Suddenly the Old Man woke up
A lean hand touched the thoughtful boy's shoulder
And tears like a stream flew through silver threads.

The shocked youngster turned his head
Ho my teacher and Rabbi – Ho my lovely son
And the boy's eyes rose up to the Rabbi's eyes
Like a child's to his father's.

Had you seen what they've done?
They did not honor my age
They violated my sanctities
For which I sacrificed my entire life

The gloomy old eyes looked
At the young boy
The pupil forever will remember
The Teacher's look penetrating deep into his soul.

[Page 135]

The persecutions of the Yeshiva
and the minister's decree

External troubles joined the internal problems. The government authorities increased the pressure. They understood that the existence of the Volozhin Ets Hayim Yeshiva was a major obstacle to introducing religious reforms in the Jewish life. They sought arguments to close the famous institution.

Mr. Makov was nominated as Interior minister of the Russian Empire in1879. Reports about the Yeshiva were submitted to his office by informants. They claimed that the Yeshiva had existed for 80 years while the authorities knew nothing about its functioning and the management might be suspected of conspiring against the Tsar. Makov examined the Yeshiva functions with sympathy. He said that Volozhin Religious School was founded by a genial and righteous Rabbi eighty years ago, it became the highest Academy for the Russian Jewry and it is not a place for conspiracies and intent to revolt. After scrupulous examinations the Yeshiva was certified to function in the Vilna authority's curatorial frame.

An important Vilna supervising team inspected the Yeshiva in 1887. They verified students' documents to discover youngsters evading army services. All papers were in order. The living conditions regarding sanitation and nutrition were inspected. The supervisors found it compatible to the governor's demands. Every student was interrogated as to his past and origin. Everyone was examined as to his knowledge of Russian language. The commission compared the students' actual number with the number written in the management's notebooks. All was found satisfactory. The supervising team members separated cordially from Hanaziv and left for Vilna. But the Rabbi was very anxious. He anticipated calamities that this visit would create in the future.

Mr. Delanov, the Education minister, confirmed the teaching program for the Volozhin establishment on December 22, 1891 and this was submitted to Hanaziv. It contained four paragraphs.

1) Introducing secular studies every day from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon.

2) The learning hours should not exceed 10 hours per one day and night.

3) The learning should be interrupted in the evening and the building should be closed at night.

4) The Yeshiva head and all the teachers should be certified with diplomas.

The 3rd paragraph limiting learning hours was the worst. As per Rabbi Khayim's spiritual heritage the Torah Study shall be implemented night and day without interruption. If Torah learning were to be interrupted, God forbid, even for one minute only, the world might be ruined.

Some Jewish leaders supported the government program. Mr. Erez, the “Hamelitz” editor, in its December 1880 issue suggested teaching the Volozhin Yeshiva students to correctly speak and write in the State language and to understand it perfectly. He also suggested teaching them arithmetic and the history of the countries of the world. Knowing these disciplines is obligatory for a grown man to live decently.

Among the important opponents to the government's methods was Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveytshik. He required conducting the Yeshiva as it should be and if it's not possible he preferred closing the institution. The answer was that Torah study cannot be disturbed at all by secular learning. One may learn secular objects prior to or after he invested his body and soul in Torah and Talmud studies, but never together. General studies are surely useful but they will contaminate the pure Torah learning when mixed under a common roof.

[Page 138]

The Yeshiva Closure
– “The Destruction of the Third Temple”

“It was an ordinary winter morning. Little Volozhin woke up and saw its angry scenery enveloped in snow on a frosty January day. Deep snow wrapped its hills and slopes, the wooden over bent roofs of the house's and even the near pine forest was wrapped in white furs. The grey skies were low almost touching the Yeshiva roof that rose proudly over the shtetl's little houses with some wise scholar's arrogance. At the Yeshiva's feet spread the renowned local swamps, still frozen. Horse harnessed sleighs arrived from Molodetshno near the rail station at a wonderful speed. Inhabitants came in and out of the Synagogue. Shops were opened. Peasant sleighs with rural products appeared at the market place. Jews were walking about, scrutinizing the products and bargaining the price of a dozen eggs, a pot of milk, a piece of poultry. Around Yossi Zelig's inn, new Yeshiva students were loitering, the famous institution's secret legends looking from their eyes and Balabatim from all around Russia who came to see the Great renowned Yeshiva.”

So describes “Sheen” the Yeshiva Closure in “Hatsofe” 1942.

That day in January 1892 the students were learning as usual. The governor, the town mayor and a group of policemen entered the Yeshiva. The commission speaker asked the students to cease their learning. When silence took control, he read the authorities decisions: The Yeshiva shall be closed, the students and teachers shall be expelled from Volozhin. They had to leave town within three days. Hanaziv sat as if he had fainted, when hearing the declaration translated to Yiddish

Everything possible was evacuated from the building. The Yeshiva was empty and the ruin became evident. All the inhabitants of Volozhin, old and young, men women and children assembled near the Yeshiva. Praying and weeping they kissed the holy scrolls. Many of them called “The third Temple is ruined”. The great 100 years old Torah institution is destroyed and there is no one to save it.

After the functionaries found out that the building was completely abandoned they locked the entrance doors and sealed them with a huge government stamp. They threatened that opening the doors would be punished severely.

The Volozhin Yeshiva's closure made a terrible impression not only Rabbis and scholars of Judaism - people to whom the Torah was their art, but also every Jew. Every one understood that the Yeshiva's destruction was a blow to Jewish culture - a national disaster.

[Page 140]

Midnight mourning beside the Yeshiva

Yeshiva men, depressed and humiliated, left town to return home in little groups. Peasant horse-harnessed carts gathered from the entire region to convey those expelled to the railroad station. Bitter frost reigned outdoors. A wild blizzard covered the entire world with snow.

The Minha-afternoon prayer was carried out for the first time in another place, not in the Yeshiva. The Rabbi stood in his corner. He prayed his way clearly pronouncing every word as threading pearls. Arriving at “Blessed be He” he could not restrain himself. Looking through the windows he saw the abandoned Yeshiva seeming in his eyes the dead body of his people. Hanaziv interrupted the praying, and raising both arms he recovered and justified the judgement: “God is righteous in all his ways and charitable in his deeds”.

But Hanaziv was not calmed; he did not cease to mourn the holy institution. On this winter day; Volozhin was wrapped in heavy snow. The Yeshiva windows which had spread light for ninety years stood dark and projected fear. The local inhabitants did not approach the “dead sanctuary”, they were afraid to profane its holiness. Only Hanaziv was permitted to stay some weeks in Volozhin. One morning, threads in the snow on the passage to the Yeshiva were discovered. Late in the night, when the market place was deserted and nobody would leave his warm nest the Rabbi used to sneak out to stand near the locked door and there read midnight mourning prayers. Snow tempest, heavy frost, authorities' prohibition nothing could prevent the old man from standing before the building which became his second soul and to cry.

“Alas for the children of Israel, expelled from their living place and wandering over seven roads”.

The old Rabbi could not depart from his nest, which he had cultivated for forty years. His footsteps were also on the way to “Beys Harav” tents where Reb Hayim was interred. Here he used to prostrate himself on the Prodigious tomb in his trouble and sorrow.

Hanaziv left Volozhin after the Yeshiva closure. He went through Pinsk to Warsaw. He had planned to go and to end his life in Jerusalem. But he was too old and sick for the Journey. In addition he had many debts to pay. On August 1893 a telegram arrived in Volozhin. Ms. Batya Mirl Hanaziv's wife asked the Kehila to say Psalms and to ask the God Almighty for her husbands health, because he was very ill. Volozhin inhabitants assembled in the Beys Hamidrash to fulfill the Rebetsin's demand. The Psalms were said crying with great intensity.

On August 29, 1893 it was announced in Warsaw that Hanaziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin who was for thirty eight years Head of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva died at seven in the morning one and a half years after the institution was closed.

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